What was at stake in the crisis of 1051-2?
⇒ Evaluating the primary sources for Edward the Confessor’s reign presents a unique challenge to the historian. More than any other pre-Conquest king of the English, Edward’s reign was subject to wildly differing narrative treatment by contemporaries. This, of course, was due more to the events that followed his death than anything he did in life, with the greatest division of opinion being between the English sources on the one hand and the Norman or ‘Normanist’ sources on the other. The disagreement among contemporaries over the nature of the reign, and of the king’s strategy, now forms the basis for much of the debate over his kingship. In particular, the question of whether he employed a consistent ‘Norman policy’ has long divided opinion: the Victorian Freeman’s rather extreme view of Edward as a quisling who was essentially French in identity and policy may no longer be taken seriously, but debate continues to rage over how far the various accounts presented in the English and French sources should be given credence. The question of the significance of the crisis of 1051-2 can be understood in the same context. The Norman sources imply that a promise of the English throne was made to Duke William by Edward at around this time, and so invite us to think of the king’s ensuing disagreement with the Godwin family in terms of a succession debate. The picture presented by the English sources, on the other hand, is more suggestive of struggle for power, influence and loyalty taking place within the kingdom; between the king and the English nobility, between Earl Godwin and the king, and between the Godwin family and the other leading English magnates. We must make an attempt to evaluate the possibility of a wider ‘Norman policy’, therefore, not only to settle this important question of the reign, but also to help us assess what else may have been at stake in the dispute between the king and his most powerful subject: the character of the English church, the shape of English foreign policy generally, and the internal balance of power within the kingdom. Having done so, we will perhaps be in a position to understand better not only the events of 1051-2, but also Edward’s motivation throughout his reign, and the strength of his kingship. According to the post-Conquest Norman sources – that is, William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers, following him – an offer of the succession was conveyed from Edward to Duke William by the newly appointed Norman archbishop of Canterbury, Robert, on his way to Rome to collect his pallium. There are certainly grounds for believing that such an offer might be made. For one thing, Edward himself had had no children after five years of marriage. Regardless of how we view the claims made by the author of the Vita Aedwardi, a source strongly associated with Queen Edith, that the king was wholly pious and therefore celibate, the need to designate an heir would have seemed more pressing by the 1050s, when Edward was already in his late forties. Duke William may have seemed an eminently suitable candidate to the king. Edward himself had grown up in France in exile. Although we cannot give much credence to the Norman claim that Edward nominated William in repayment for the duke’s help in securing the English crown after Harthacnut’s death, William being just a teenager in 1042, he may well have considered that he owed something to the son of Duke Robert I, who had shown him hospitality in his exile. Further, the presence at his court at least until 1052 of a significant number of Frenchmen, most notably Robert of Jumièges, does suggest that he continued to feel a connection to the country of his exile. Perhaps more pointedly, however, the Norman duke would have seemed an attractive ally to the king against both external and internal enemies, and this would have been truer than